Age, past injuries linger over Packer linebackers
Age isn't a problem on the Green Bay Packers' roster except at linebacker, where general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy are betting that advancing years won't equate as they usually do to more injuries.
A veteran personnel man for an NFC team examined Green Bay's 16-man depth chart at linebacker Friday and foresaw trouble ahead.
“Getting old,” the scout assessed. “I think (A.J.) Hawk's on the other side of his career and (Julius) Peppers is, too. (Brad) Jones is probably maxed out. (Clay) Matthews is a really good player, but he's maxed out at what he is.
“To me, when you start getting older guys you always worry about them missing time. And they've got injured guys outside backing up injured guys. Then you end up playing depth.”
Talented backups Mike Neal and Nick Perry, significant pieces in McCarthy's plan for an even more multiple defense, showed up for training camp with existing injuries. It has been one injury after another for both.
Peppers, 34, and Hawk, 30, have epitomized durability throughout their careers, but think of the punishment there has been in 196 games (194 starts) for Peppers and 137 games (133 starts) for Hawk.
Matthews, 28, has a chronic hamstring problem and a right thumb that he fractured not once but twice in the same place last season.
Jones, 28, has been available for every game in just one of the last four seasons.
If everything breaks right the Packers should have a competitive group. If not, they could end up grab-bagging again trying to turn back the run and pressure the passer.
Not only is Peppers entering his 13th season, he's a projection at left outside linebacker in a base 3-4 defense. Thompson paid Peppers $26 million over three years ($7.5 million guaranteed) on March 15 assuming he'll flourish given his ample athleticism.
“I haven't noticed any (stiffness),” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who was with Peppers in Carolina from 2002-'08. “I was Julius' coach when he was a rookie. He's always been a mature, very serious guy about his craft.”
DeMarcus Ware, 31, received $20 million in guarantees from Denver on March 12. Jared Allen, 32, went to Chicago on March 31 for $15.5 million guaranteed.
“I did all three after the season and, even though Peppers is older, I said he's the best,” another longtime NFC scout said. “He flashes enough things, and 'Trgo' coached him before.”
Still, three scouts within the NFC North unanimously voted Peppers the worst right end in the division last year.
“Actually, I thought he was rushing better inside last year than he did out,” another personnel man said. “He's not a great player anymore but he's still a good player. But you wonder, how many snaps can he take? What will he be like in December?”
Matthews should be in the prime of his career and benefiting playing opposite Peppers. Now he must stay on the field.
“When he did play he was very disruptive,” an NFC North personnel man said. “When he's on the field it's a totally different defense.”
Even when injury is largely to blame for a down season, every perennial Pro Bowl player knows there are other younger players rushing up to steal his thunder. Motivation won't be lacking for Matthews.
“He's not one of those elite athletes,” said an NFC executive. “He gets the most out of what he has. Plays hard. Understands the position. Yet there's times he can't make the play because he just lacks that extra spring or whatever you want to call it to be able to finish it.”
Neal's first season at linebacker was adequate enough to warrant a two-year, $8 million deal from Thompson on March 12. Fitting in here and there from both two- and three-point stances, Neal must be respected because of his explosion and strength.
“He can get better because he's big, athletic and physical,” another NFC North personnel man said. “He's never going to be a dynamic rusher, but he's a strong straight-line player. Not really slippery as a rusher, but he does flash some burst.”
Perry played better in Year 2 than Year 1 but got hurt again and then missed the entire off-season.
“He's got no feel,” an NFC scout said. “He's got good athletic ability but his angles and his diagnose are bad. If guys are confused or don't know, they do too much standing around.”
Holdovers Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer combined for 543 snaps as rookies. Mulumba had the more impressive off-season and is bigger.
“Mulumba's a strong kid,” an NFC scout said. “Lacked rush moves. Palmer's really raw and not real strong. Has a little athletic ability.”
Carl Bradford, a fourth-round pick, has been compared to Tedy Bruschi, another productive pass rusher from Arizona.
“Overachiever,” said an NFC scout. “Short. But he'll make some plays just because of the effort. I'm sure he'll play (special) teams well and be in the right position and fly around.”
Adrian Hubbard, a free agent from Alabama, fell to free agency because of concerns about a heart condition that weren't allayed until after the draft.
“He should have been at least a mid-round draft pick,” said an NFL scout. “Doesn't play hard all the time but really a talented athlete.”
Another rookie free agent, Jayrone Elliott, is almost as impressive physically as Hubbard.
B.J. Raji and C.J. Wilson said coordinator Dom Capers had been even more insistent last season than in previous seasons that defensive linemen occupy blockers so the inside linebackers could make the tackles.
The result was a defense that posted its worst ranking (25th) against the run since 2008 and its worst ranking (29th) in average yards allowed per rush since 2002.
On Friday, a longtime NFL personnel man was asked to compare the Packers' inside linebackers against groups from the other 15 teams that employ the 3-4 defense. Green Bay came out on the short end, 9-6.
Jones eventually became a starter after Desmond Bishop, the fierce run stuffer, blew out his quadriceps in August 2012.
“I think the injuries are mounting up on Jones,” an NFC scout said. “You kept hoping he'd come on, but he just never did. He's leggy and late to read at times. And he's late off blocks.”
Hawk, who has played about 10 pounds lighter in the last several years, had a fairly solid season in 2012 but reverted back to mediocrity in '13.
“When he first came in, his diagnose wasn't very good,” the scout said. “It's improved. Now that he's got instincts, he's fading athletically. Losing weight's not going to help him. He can't make up for the athleticism.”
After Jones went down in Game 4 with a hamstring injury, Hawk played 845 of a possible 855 snaps from Games 5-17. Given Hawk's admirable professionalism, Capers appears to rely heavily on him to call signals.
“He's the same high-effort guy,” an NFC North scout said. “He'll slip blocks more than really take them on. Very good job in zone coverage with his awareness and ability to anticipate. In blitzing, I think they hide him underneath because if he gets matched up in man coverage he's pretty much a liability.”
Jamari Lattimore begins his third season inside after a rookie season spent outside.
“Not very strong,” said one scout. “Got some athletic ability. Really a small guy. Not very aware.”